'Brain Trust': The Stellar Creative Process Designed By Pixar
If you've ever questioned the value of a strong creative process, consider that beloved movies like Toy Story and Finding Nemo wouldn't be possible without one.
Ed Catmull, president of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios, recently gave Bob Sutton, Stanford University professor of management science, a peek into Pixar's own creative process during a recent talk at Stanford's Entrepreneurship Corner.
There, Catmull explained that the company's creative process first came about in an ad hoc manner, but ever since it's been the model for a more intentional approach for fostering creativity at the company.
"The 'brain trust' is something we happened on accidentally. John [Lasseter, cofounder of Pixar Animation Studios] was the director, and he had four people around him who were very focused and funny and really driven. And they were passionate about the film itself. So they would have intense discussions, but it was never personal," Catmull said.
Catmull wanted to see if the same approach could work within other groups of the company, like Pixar's in technical branch, for example. To his disappointment, he found that a brain trust approach didn't necessarily yield the same output of creative ideas for all groups. He wanted to know why, given that he knew each group included smart people with untapped ideas.
Pure and Efficient Brainstorming
Catmull went back, looked at the original group, and came away with two conclusions. One, the brain trust must exist solely for brainstorming and discussion. It can't have any power or authority over an outcome.
"And the consequence of that is that the director [of the film], the person responsible, was not coming into the room in a defensive posture knowing that this group could screw him over," Catmull said. "So it changed the dynamics."
And two, the dynamics of the group required management. Brain trusts were tasked with solving tough problems. Rather than stepping in and try to help solve these problems himself, as a manager, Catmull would step in to make sure that every member of the group was exercising his or her voice.
"So our view as the managers was not to actually examine the idea at the time. It was to sit back and examine the dynamics of the room," Catmull explained. "So rather than me get caught up in a problem, I wanted to look and see if they are all saying what they think?"
"The result is we got this group which on the whole has done completely remarkable things. Every once in a while it doesn't work. It collapses. And every once in a while magic happens," Catmull said.